Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Story Length Terminology and Guidelines

What do you do if an editor asks you to cut your story to “Drabble” length?

A Drabble is a story of exactly 100 words, so this scenario is unlikely unless the publication you’re dealing with specialises in this type of work.

Internet and electronic publications are less constricted by story length than print publications are, so you will often find their guidelines for length are fairly broad. Some may specify only the minimum or maximum word count.

Terminology for short stories

Many contests are for shorter stories rather than novel or novella-length works. The term “Flash Fiction” applies generally to stories of around 1,000 words, but is often applied to anything between 200 and 2,000 words. Lately in many cases, the term Flash Fiction has incorporated the “Short-short story” (500-2,000 words) guideline and this term may begin to fall away.

A “Short Story” is usually considered to be between 1,000 and 7,500 words. In years past “Novellette” took the 7,500 to 15,000 word slot and a “Novella” was between 15,000 and 40,000 words. However, many publications will specify guidelines for “short stories up to 15,000”, and the term “novelette” may be falling away also.

Guidelines for longer works

Novellas were quite popular in the first half of the twentieth century and writers didn’t risk an agent or publisher’s wrath by producing a book of only 40,000 words. Later, as publishers organised special rates with printers for standard length books, works falling outside the standard were less likely to be accepted until they’d been rewritten to suit the specifications.

Now, though, the publishing industry is slowly changing again, with the advancement of Print on Demand technology. It is possible that book length will be less important than it has been as books are printed as the orders come in, rather than being a risky investment in thousands of copies that may or may not sell.

The standard length for a genre or commercial fiction novel is 100,000 words. Literary fiction has more leeway and can range from 60,000 words to 150,000 words, and Fantasy has also broken out of the standard by allowing epic tomes of 200,000 words for just one book in a series. It stands to reason that to aim for the 100,000 word mark when you start writing or when you’re editing your novel, will give agents and publishers one less thing to count against you when considering your submission.

Even if you’re writing fantasy, work on the principle of being able to produce more words when the publisher asks for them, rather than enthusiastically presenting everything up front. While it is rare to see a standalone fantasy novel of 100,000 words, publishers take on less risk if the author is prepared to be flexible about the rest of the books in a series. If the first book is a failure and the others can stand as separate and different books, something can still be salvaged. If the first is a success, the others can more safely be presented as a continuing series.

Elsa Neal

Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She offers a Peer Critique Service specialising in full length novels. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.
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  1. You never know what a publisher is going to call what, so I always check for the word count before I submit. Don't want to start off on the wrong foot, because there's usually no second chance.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. I've never heard of a Drabble. Is this something new, or am I just really old? LOL.


  3. Drabbling is a fun exercise, and there are some places that do publish drabble length works. They are mostly online publications, I believe. Like Morgan, I double check word count before I submit anything. Personally, I think it's a lot easier to go through and cut out unnecessary stuff than to add in extra words to a story you feel is complete.

  4. Drabble - interesting. Last ms I submitted, a fiction novel, most pub houses had a min. 50K word count requirement. Some higher, but several at that amount. This is a good article!

  5. Thanks, Marv.

    I'm not sure how long Drabble has been around or where it came from. I discovered it a couple of years ago when I did some research on publisher requirements for shorter works.

    Morgan and Jenny, I agree about checking before sending.

  6. From good old Wikipedia:

    "The term [Drabble] comes from Monty Python's 1971 Big Red Book. In this book, "Drabble" was a word game where the first participant to write a novel wins. In order to make the game possible in the real world, it was agreed that 100 words would suffice."

    It seems to have been popularised by fan fiction communities for fun contests where a theme is given and the writing is timed and must equal 100 words.

    "The Drabble Project" claims that the contest developed out of a game played at Birmingham University in the 1980s.

  7. Very interesting bit about Drabble- I think I like that game.

    I too think the definitions of some of these terms are varied. For example flash fiction- some stop at 500, some at 200, some at 1000. Best to check guidelines.

    Good post, Elsa.


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